I think most baseball experts and Rays fans anticipated the Tampa Bay Rays trading Ben Zobrist before the offseason was over. He is a free agent next year and it made no sense for the Rays to let him walk with no return but a draft pick. However, very few people expected Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to go in the same deal and now the Rays are scrambling for a 2015 double play combination.
How are the Rays going to piece together shortstop and second base on their roster with both Zobrist and Escobar both members of the Oakland Athletics ? Let’s take a look at the possibilities given the current talent on the 40-man roster.
The first candidate is Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera is a middle infielder who was recently signed to a one-year, $7.5 million contract with the Rays. He was an All-Star shortstop with the Cleveland Indians in 2011-12 and has logged 731 career games at shortstop and 210 at second base.
Cabrera’s overall game declined the last two seasons, with many in baseball believing his shortstop days are over and that he will be best utilized at second base moving forward. However, he does have the most major league experience at shortstop and should be the leading contender at the position going into spring training.
The next candidate is Nick Franklin. Coming over from Seattle in the David Price deal, Franklin has always been a bit of a mystery. The former #1 draft choice and top Seattle prospect has struggled in his brief big league time at the plate and, when playing shortstop, in the field. His career major league slash line of .213/.289/.358 and his play at shortstop has limited his playing time to 13 games at position.
Franklin was shifted to second base, and when Seattle signed Robinson Cano in 2014, his fate was sealed. However, Franklin is athletic and played 320 games at short in the minors. The Rays will undoubtedly give him a shot at shortstop in spring training and if he plays well there and hits, they would love to have him at that position.
Logan Forsythe is on the roster, but he’s not in the mix for the majority of time at either position. If he makes the team, he is best served as a utility infielder and a platoon player at second base, first base, and DH against left-handed pitching. He has a .271/.337/.423 career slash line against lefties, but that’s where his game begins and ends.
Of more interest are a couple of rookies, with the first being Tim Beckham. The #1 overall pick in the MLB Draft in 2008, the Rays have waited seven seasons for Beckham’s game to develop. They thought he was almost there entering 2014 until he tore up his knee.
Although most scouts now see him as an offense-first utility infielder, Beckham has played 358 minor league games at short. He will get a long look in spring training and if Franklin falters, he could be in the Rays’ double play mix. Most likely, Beckham would be hoping to make the team as a bench player and work his way into more time.
And finally, we need to talk about Hak-Ju Lee. After coming over from the Chicago Cubs in 2011, Lee has consistently been ranked among the Rays’ top 10 prospects. He was on the fast-track to be the Rays’ shortstop until he also needed knee surgery, in 2013 in his case.
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Although he was healthy in 2014, Lee’s season proved to be a disaster at he plate as he posted a dismal .203/.321/.317 slash line. Nonetheless, MLB.com still rates him as the Rays’ #5 prospect and sees him as a potential Gold Glove shortstop. As his knee injury moves farther into the past, the Rays also hope that Lee’s bat will return to form. If all else fails, the Rays could turn to Lee as good field/no hit alternative.
Those are the five most obvious candidates to solve the Rays’ current middle infield spots. There are still a few free agents available, but none are very attractive. Trades also can be made, but teams demand a king’s ransom for decent big league middle infielders.
If the season opened today, I would see Cabrera at shortstop and Franklin at second. Spring training may cause a flip-flop there, but Cabrera is clearly going to play one of those positions–they didn’t give him $7.5 million to sit on the bench.
Franklin, meanwhile, could play short if his defense proves to be better than Cabrera, but there would certainly be risk involved with doing that. Franklin has yet to figure out major league pitching, and it is a dangerous proposition for the Rays to force Franklin to improve both at the plate and in the field. The only good reason to play Franklin at short is if Cabrera is so bad there that the Rays believe they don’t have a choice.
If Franklin fails to hit, Beckham or Lee could play a bigger role up the middle. However it shakes out, though, the Tampa Bay Rays’ defense at shortstop and second base next season will probably never be as impressive as the Escobar-Zobrist duo was in 2013. We can only hope that it will be good enough that the middle infielders’ offensive production will make them valuable to the team.